Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Cross-posting from - The virtues of progressive pedantry

Does grammar matter? Does the way we adorn our language with spelling, punctuation, the right constructions and even, sometimes, standard vocabulary add to the clarity of our expression? Or does it just hinder the reader’s understanding of what we’re trying to say? The world has moved on a long way from the days when a government mandarin might write:

“This is offensive impertinence, up with which I will not put.”

Wrongly attributed to Churchill, it’s the kind of grammar pedantry that would not allow the writer to conclude a sentence with a preposition. Thankfully, the world has moved on. But, in much more recent times, I’ve noticed distinct slippage in the way we use grammar, punctuation and vocabulary. To some, that simply doesn’t matter. Oxford University’s Simon Horobin, speaking at the Hay Festival, asked grammar pedants to relax over such things as the use of the apostrophe; the spelling of words such as through (thru) and, more generally, the consistency of written English. He has a point. English is dynamic and ever changing. In fact, I’m rather surprised that he didn’t ask his audience to “chillax.” However, when it comes to business writing, the objective is to create a shared understanding, and you’ll only achieve that through consistency.

In the past couple of months, I’ve been bouncing between the usual round of client copy editing; assessing award entries, and marking undergraduate essays and dissertations. It has been illuminating in understanding just where we stand in grammar wars. From my perspective, written English is in a state of flux. There’s an age divide that seems to split those aged 35 and upwards from their younger peers, while we also have a divide between native speakers and those for whom English is a second (at least) written language.

Older writers are more structured, more formal in their use of grammar – but (huge generalisation) also more passive in their sentence construction and prone to 70 word + sentences. Late Gen Xers and the Ys and Zs following are consistent only in their inconsistency. They have a fleeting relationship with the rules of grammar, and such tools as apostrophes are sprinkled without rhyme or an awful lot of reason through their direct, active and often sparkling copy. They’ve slipped back, though, into the world of ‘amongst’, and ‘whilst’ for among and while. My students tells me it gives more gravitas to their copy. I simply repeat what my English Language tutor at Manchester University, Dr. David Denison, told me back in 1982: “It’s archaic, and a waste of ink.” That was 30+ years ago, but what was archaic then is creeping back now (and adds no gravitas!)

We’re far from txt spk taking over (another myth), but the business and essay writing of the young reflects a complete neglect of lessons around the process of written English in UK schools through the 90s and 00s.

And then there’s the rise of ‘International English’ – this new concept of English written for a global audience by non-native speakers that adopts the grammar rules of their native language. I’ll give you an example. I received some copy from a Dutch client that started: “Since today, we are rolling out a new way of working across the business.” I pointed out that this use of ‘Since’ was not something we’d say. In British English, ‘since’ always implies the past. My Dutch colleague simply didn’t get it – not entirely surprising as the construction is common in Dutch and German and used as we might use ‘from’. There are more and more examples of these internationalisms creeping in. Perhaps they’re a natural evolution, but the more crass intrusions should still be picked up with a view to helping the writer understand the nuances of British English.

Of course, the other battle is against that bastard son of American English, corporate babble. If I see another “leveraging the synergies” in my life, it will be several lifetimes too soon. Every organisation has its own language style, but the continual verbalising of nouns and use of meaningless phrases simply does the language no favours at all.

I used to think of myself as a grammar Nazi – but that has a distinctly pejorative tone. Today, I’m happier as a progressive pedant. Language – and our use of it – evolves. I’m comfortable about starting a sentence with ‘And’ and ending it with a preposition. I pepper my copy with contractions, the occasional elision – and the odd flourished dash.

And now I preach what I practice. Whether through my business grammar training module, through marking and grading undergraduate essays, or simply through editing client copy for publication, I’m striving for that balance that makes the written word clear, and technically as correct as it should be.
We can’t be stuffy about the development of language, but nor should we encourage creeping language anarchy. The goal has to be about creating understanding. For that, some simple rules, and their consistent implementation, is key.

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